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The NFL And Weight: Bigger Is Better, But It Shouldn't Be

One of BRB's writers examines the history of weight in the NFL and wonders why nobody thinks it's a real problem worthy of being addressed.

Houston Texans v Miami Dolphins
The epitome of the NFL big man, Vince Wilfork
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

A few months ago, we saw Vince Wilfork land on the cover of ESPN The Magazine's "Body Issue". Needless to say, the striking image drew a wide variety of reactions from horror, to hilarity, to support for the fact that a major magazine was continuing its promotion of different body types after its equally naked Prince Fielder cover for its body issue in 2014.

Now, before we continue, I would like to state that it is not my prerogative to make anybody feel self-conscious about their body or how they look. Nor should it be anybody else’s. That being said, when has it been natural or normal to celebrate someone who is upward of 330 pounds? I don't mean that as remark about people of that girth not gracing the covers of sports magazines. I mean it in the sense that individuals or athletes at that size just shouldn't exist. Any normal person who lives at that weight would be considered generally unhealthy by society and probably by the medical community also. So why do these kinds of body types exist in the NFL? Why has their appearance become a common and accepted sight in the NFL?

Let's do a bit of archaeology. The first player recorded to play at 300 lbs. in the NFL was St. Louis defensive tackle Roger Brown, who was part of the "Fearsome Foursome" defensive line that included such luminaries as Deacon Jones in the late 1960s. Of course, we also had William ''Fridge'' Perry on the Bears in the 1980s. Perry was reported to weigh around 380 lbs. during his playing career.

It wasn't until the early 1990s that the league average weight for offense linemen and defensive linemen would steadily climb towards the 300 pound number. Defensive ends and centers would be the only two position groups on both the offensive and defensive lines that wouldn't rise above the 300 lbs. in terms of average weight. For the time they played, both Brown and Perry were aberrations. These players were exceptions to the general rule of player size, and in many ways they broke these same rules. They were the physical outliers in the way that Shaquille O Neal or Yao Ming were. Nobody had ever seen anything like Brown or Perry, and nobody knew how to deal with it. The old adage that gets thrown around in the NFL is that it is a copycat league. The success that these larger players had showed that there was a method for success in using guys of that size. Naturally, an increase in larger players occurred; in order to counter this, the size of the opposing line increased to counteract this influx of behemoths. It was a nuclear deterrent of sorts. One team had bigger players, so in order to match them, you had to invest in similarly sized players to keep up in the arms race.

Of course, advances in training techniques, nutrition, and the increased specialisation of position players allowed for a greater focus in finding the right person to fill a particular role. I am not saying that the successes of the outliers brought about the massive increase in player size, but I believe it did show another way in which teams in the NFL could succeed. It's at this point I would like to bring in a bit of apparent football wisdom from former NFL coach George Young (who would go on to win five NFL Executive of the Year awards), who coined the term ‘’Planet Theory’’ in regards to the construction of a team through the draft. The Planet Theory simply states that there are only so many human beings on the planet who possess the otherworldly size and athletic ability to play in the trenches in the NFL, so when one individual who possess these traits arrives, they should be valued extremely highly. Since the NFL has become awash with a whole bunch of 300+ lb. players who possess the agility of house cats, the focus of the Planet Theory has centered on the upper crust of football playing humanity. Specifically, those players of Vince Wilfork’s size and skill-set are seen as the main examples of the Planet Theory today.

The issue with the Planet Theory is that it normalizes the idea that these kinds of individuals need to exist. I mean, the Planet Theory was designed by a NFL coach/executive, someone who has the power to decide whether a player gets a job or not. It's almost incentivising the idea that bigger is better. Of course, for every defensive lineman at 300+ pounds, there is an offensive lineman to match him. Take this post from the NFL Operations page about the evolution of the NFL, which includes this passage:

In the early 1980s, Washington line coach Joe Bugel told Joe Jacoby, a 6 foot 7 inch, 275-pound offensive tackle at the University of Louisville, that he had a chance to make it in the NFL — but only if he got bigger.

It may not seem like much, but I find it kind of odd that someone who is 6'7" and 275 pounds has a career that is considered to be in jeopardy unless he gets bigger. The issue here is the reason why players needed to get bigger. It’s rationally understandable and makes sense within the context of the NFL, but nowhere is it asked why it needs to be this way or why this incessant march to get bigger, stronger and faster needed to happen without considering the ramifications of those actions.

In this article, Gene Garber chronicles the various struggles players have after their NFL career with their weight. So much emphasis is placed on the need for players to maintain a higher weight during their careers that the effect of that weight on their post-career lives is never considered. This is the problem. Once you are outside an environment where strict weight management is required and the endless hours of work no longer occur, the muscle that had been on their bodies turns to fat. It starts to put stress and strain on their cardiovascular systems. This is something that the NFL even acknowledges is a problem. As Garber states:

Roberts founded the Living Heart Foundation. Partnered with the NFL and NFL Players Association, the foundation has screened more than 2,000 former players for cardiovascular disease and helped raise awareness.

These are the ramifications. Does it not show a lack of foresight to not anticipate the issues that might come with having 300+ pounds on a person’s body? That's before we consider the fact that they are playing one of the most brutal sports in existence, which we found out recently from one of the game's best, leading to horrific damage to players' bodies and potentially beyond. Nobody stopped during these 30 years of literal player growth and thought to ask what the long term repercussions of these actions might be?  Nobody thought that carrying around 300+ pounds would be a potential medical risk?  Nobody thought that having 300+ pounders flinging themselves at smaller players could potentially increase the damage to other players?

The danger of this issue often gets undercut by the fact that it’s not even the most prominent health issue that the NFL deals with today. What’s even scarier about this is the fact that there can be studies and articles that publish findings like this or this. Issues like these just emphasize the fact that humans are simply not supposed to exist at these kinds of weights for any long period of time.  Why hasn’t the NFL considered changing something to protect its players?

At this point, it would be ignorant to not raise the point that the players made the choice to do this to themselves.  Nobody forced them to choose this career.  The decision to pursue a professional football career comes with the potential to be well compensated to the point that it might potentially warrant the risks. This is true; the NFL pays handsomely for the services of these players.  This acknowledgement and acceptance of money and risk by the player is inadvertently measuring the price of that person's health against potential earnings and considering whether it is worth it.

That to me is the weirdest thing about this.  Despite the potential damage the players endure both on and off the field, the big man is still fetishized all the same. Even we here at BRB are guilty of this. How many of us have jokingly or seriously typed the words ''#NTLUST?"  I know I have, and that's the problem. As long as big men are still effective and beloved by NFL coaching staffs and fans for their size and ability, nothing will change. There is a cult of personality surrounding the big man.

I’m going to be honest here. I’d love for the NFL to introduce something like institute a maximum weight limit. I’d like to see the league contribute more to the issue of protecting and helping linemen with health issues after their NFL career, but I just get the feeling that they won’t. Take this quote from the Calvin Johnson piece that I linked above:

"They're some good people, you know. They want to see you do good. But at the same time, they work for the team, you know. They're trying to do whatever they can to get you back on the field and make your team look good. So if it's not gonna make the team look good, or if you're not gonna be on the field, then they're tryin' to do whatever they can to make that happen."

This is the unfortunate reality of the NFL in most cases. The team is better when the players are bigger, so the players will keep getting bigger until there’s a good reason for them not to (like the team is better without them). The process will continue. Players will put themselves at risk. Until something serious happens that forces change, nothing will change. Bigger will continue to be better.